Life outside the tribe

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet discusses his latest book, an analysis of 'self-hating' Jews in the Diaspora.

david mamet 88 (photo credit: )
david mamet 88
(photo credit: )
From the novelty-obsessed, tinseled town upon whose sunny hillside stands our era's emblem of hedonism - the grand, wooden letters of the Hollywood sign - an improbably ancient message has emerged. Its bearer is David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna), novelist (The Village, The Old Religion, Wilson), screenwriter (The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag the Dog) and film director (House of Games, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner). His latest work of non-fiction is The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, a passionate cry for his assimilationist brethren, plagued by loneliness and anomie, to rejoin the tribe and religion they have forsaken. "The nagging question, the essential question," Mamet writes, "the question that can be put and answered only through ritual, though less often asked, remains. It is this: instead of worshipping the wind and the water, fortune and fame, do you have the courage to stand in awe of that which gave rise to them, to you, and to your human urges?" Click for upcoming events calendar! Mamet recently spoke to The Jerusalem Post from his home in Los Angeles, where he's now working on his new creation, a CBS television series called The Unit. "I'm not saying anybody who's not as kosher as me can go to hell. I'm not even prescribing or suggesting any specific degree of religious observance," Mamet said. "What I'm saying is that there happens to be a book devoted to [Diaspora Jews'] exact problem. And, coincidentally, it is the foundation text of three of the world's great religions, and, most importantly, of the race of which you were born." A reference to the haughty, alienated child described at the Passover seder, The Wicked Son is addressed to the lapsed Jew; the apostate, rationalist and self-loathing assimilationist; the Jew who ascribes his sense of displacement to his heritage rather than to his rejection of it. "The assimilated Jew," Mamet writes, "whether conscious of the drive or not, muddles toward community and calls it yoga, self-help, agnosticism, Buddhism, sports participation or rooting, in much the same way as the wealthy try, serially, this or that new car, home, husband or wife." With so many Jews in Hollywood who seem to neatly fit that description, it's somewhat surprising to hear Mamet say that the book has been received "pretty damn well" there. "I got a lot of letters and phone calls from people - Jews in Hollywood who I wouldn't have even thought had read it, and they were all endorsements of the book and of my point of view," Mamet said. But the book is not only addressed to assimilationist Jews. It is also addressed to those Jews who "jeer at the Israeli Defense Forces," who decry the "rape of Jenin" and perpetuate what Mamet considers the latest incarnation of the ancient blood libel that Israel is avaricious and bloodthirsty. And while the book may not conflate the anti-Israel with the assimilationist, neither does it address those Jews who fall into one but not both categories. How overlapping does Mamet believe the groups to be? "Somebody who's at least approaching middle age as a Jew in [the US], that person might say of my ideas in the book, legitimately, 'They don't apply to me,'" Mamet said. "Even if that person is assimilated or even if that Jew does not identify himself as part of the Jewish religion. The person might legitimately say - it could happen - 'These ideas don't apply to me.' But I defy that person to say, 'I've never witnessed it.' There are Jews who aren't religiously observant at all who are members of and supporters of their race. That's fine. That's as it should be." Assimilation, of course, is not a problem that Israelis Jews have reason to worry over. But the secularism, anomie and loss of identification with Judaism and Israel that The Wicked Son describes are also recurrent themes of social commentary here. One can't help but wonder what Mamet makes of Israel's "apostate Jews." "It's not my intention to criticize the level of observance a Jew has," Mamet said. "Rather, my intention is to say 'get in or get out.' 'You're a Jew or you're not.' There's a vast number of people in Israel who don't go to shul who identify as Jews. Those people do not have the problems of the Jews in the Diaspora. You guys are involved in the fairly exigent existence of day to day. The Jews of Israel don't go around saying 'I'm Jewish but I'm not that Jewish.' "In my country it's not so clear. And what I'm saying in the book is that it's a cause of great unhappiness - to the individual and to the group: loneliness being suppressed. And suppressed often through the application of what wants to call itself reason, which under close examination is superstition." Another prominent criticism of The Wicked Son is that it has exaggerated the degree of anti-Semitism that exists today. Is it true, as Mamet repeats in the book, that "the world hates the Jews"? "It is true," Mamet said. "It happens to be true. I was listening to Jimmy Carter, who I understand was the President of the United States at one time, on a radio program in the United States, two nights ago, spouting anti-Semitic filth about Israel. The rhetoric of Jimmy Carter was not far from the rhetoric of Charles Lindbergh in 1940, saying that the Jews were bringing us to war." A review in The New York Times said that Mamet "writes as if [the anti-Semitic 1930s broadcaster] Father Coughlin is still on the radio, Henry Ford still hawks The Dearborn Independent and Fritz Kuhn's German American Bundists still march through Yorkville." "The fact is that someone is out to get us," Mamet said. "One doesn't have to look to CNN and the report of the Kassam rockets; one can turn on [American public radio] and listen to Jimmy Carter." Commendable as Mamet's defense of Israel may be, the lasting impact of the book is sure to lie in its analysis of the Diaspora. "Self-loathing is just a denial of longing," Mamet said. "We all have various longings. Some of them are achievable, some aren't. Some are moral, and some aren't. But to deny them can result in self-loathing, especially when their presence is understood not as healthy longing but as an unfortunate aspect of one's self or one's race or one's religion." "The opposite of life in this tribe," Mamet writes, "is a life of anxiety, lovelessness and loss."